The US resumption of drone strikes against militant targets in Pakistan does not signal an improvement in deeply frayed relations between Washington and Islamabad, US officials and experts said on Wednesday.
In the first such attack since Nov. 17, at least four militants were killed by missiles fired from an unmanned US drone at a house on the outskirts of Miranshah in the Pakistani tribal region of North Waziristan, Pakistani security and intelligence officials said.
Tense US and Pakistani relations worsened after a Nov. 26 incident in which 24 Pakistani troops manning remote border posts were accidentally killed in a misdirected air strike by coalition forces based in Afghanistan.
Current and former US government officials familiar with the drone program said the apparent lull in attacks since the November incident represented no major change in US policy governing drone use.
US officials insisted there was no formal decision to suspend drone attacks after the wayward Nov. 26 attack. Officials said that while the operating practices of the drone program had evolved over time, the timing of attacks was based on the availability of adequate targeting intelligence and the suitability of flying conditions and did not depend on the ups and downs of the US-Pakistan relationship.
But one former US official who has advised President Barack Obama on policy in the region did not discount the possibility the most recent lull in drone attacks might have been calculated, at least in part, to "cool tempers" in Pakistan following the November incident.
Officials and experts in Washington said the militants targeted in Wednesday's air strike were believed to be "foreign fighters" of Arab and possibly also Uzbek extraction.
None of the militants killed fit the description of "high-value" targets, U.S. sources said, meaning they were not believed to be leaders of Al Qaeda, the Taliban or related militant groups.
The CIA has run the US government's drone program in Pakistan as a clandestine operation whose existence US and Pakistani authorities officially deny. When the program started during President George W. Bush's administration, lethal drone strikes were limited initially to "high-value militant" targets and occurred very infrequently.
In the summer of 2008, Bush secretly authorized a change that significantly expanded possible targets for lethal drone attacks. Under the new rules, the CIA, if it had appropriate intelligence, was authorized to fire on encampments of "foreign fighters" as well as "high-value" targets.
Following the rule change, drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas became more frequent in the last few months of Bush's presidency. By most accounts, until US relations with Pakistan began to deteriorate sharply toward the end of 2010, Obama's administration further stepped up the rate of drone strikes.